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A nuclear future

Last week, I argued that the proposed Hinkley Point C reactor, to be built by EDF with Chinese partnership, did not represent good value for money for the UK taxpayer. This week, it’s appropriate to look at some of the reasons why nuclear fission remains a key technology for the future, and why one bad deal shouldn’t be allowed to put that future in jeopardy.

In fact, as others have pointed out to me, even the Hinkley project may not be so bad when taken in context. There are other projects also in the pipeline in the UK. Nugen is a joint venture between Toshiba and ENGIE (formerly GDF SUEZ, so more French involvement), with a proposal to build a 3.4GW capacity station (about the same as EDF’s Hinkley C) at Moorside in West Cumbria. Toshiba is the current owner of Westinghouse, which would provide the AP1000, like the EDF project a pressurised-water design. Four reactors of this design are being built in China, with another four in the USA.

The third player in the UK is Hitachi-GE Nuclear, which bought Horizon Nuclear Power from its founders E.ON UK and RWE npower in 2012. The plan is to build up to 6GW of new capacity on the existing Wylfa and Oldbury sites, using the alternative Advanced Boiling Water Reactor design. Building work at Wylfa could start in 2018.

EDF themselves have longer-term plans to build additional reactors at Sizewell, on the Suffolk coast. If all these plans come to fruition, that would add 16GW of new generating capacity to the network, considerably more than the current approximately 9GW. The danger, to some people, is that by pulling out of what seems to be a bad deal for Hinkley C the UK government puts at risk the entire nuclear new build programme. Although no-one has finally signed on the dotted line, there has been considerable investment by EDF at Hinkley already, and a failure to go ahead could give the other consortia cold feet.

Others would argue that too high a strike price for the first deal would raise expectations for all others and make nuclear permanently less economic. However, EDF’s strike price would in fact be reduced if they then built further EPR reactors at Sizewell; the high price for Hinkley takes into account that this is effectively ‘first of kind’ and therefore carries greater risks. The AP1000 reactors should, by the time they are built, be more proven and therefore Nugen should not expect such a high price for their output. The same could apply to the Hitachi-GE ABWR.

All of which is to say that the situation is more complex and the arguments more finely balanced than they may seem at first sight. But the fact is that nuclear fission remains the most promising mid-term source of clean, reliable energy. In any future where electric cars have become mainstream, this could be very important. Even if there were not to be increased demand from this sector, electricity demand is likely to remain broadly stable and existing generation capacity will need to be renewed.

All of which is by way of background to the main point. Nuclear fission is a controllable process which can be used to generate large amounts of electricity safely, reliably and over many decades. Fuel costs are low, although the high capital costs push the levelised cost per kilowatt hour up. Nevertheless, the price is still at least competitive with the nominal price of onshore wind and, crucially, there are no hidden additional costs in the form of backup capacity needed to cope with intermittency. The question is not whether any future electricity grid less reliant on fossil fuels should rely to a large extent on nuclear, but how it can be brought on stream in an efficient manner. It is the lack of tried and tested designs which can be built at known cost which is the present stumbling block.

The main theoretical alternative to a major role for nuclear is energy storage on a massive scale, sufficient to keep a modern society reliant on wind and solar energy fully functional for extended periods in winter when days are short and high pressure systems result in days of calm weather. Currently, it seems inconceivable that such a system could be developed, although future advances in technology could change that.

The other theoretical alternative is nuclear fusion, which has always been 30 years away through the lifetime of most of us. Admittedly, ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) now under construction in the south of France, might be producing 500MW of fusion power for 50MW input by the late 2020s, as intended, but this is still an experimental facility. Maybe commercial reactors could be coming on stream in the second half of the century, but fission will remain the more practical approach at least until then.

Part of the problem with the new generation of reactors is their sophisticated passive safety features. Once these have been incorporated at the sites currently under construction, costs should begin to fall as standardisation becomes the norm, and the result will be a fleet of reactors which are intrinsically safe. Despite the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear fission is by some margin the safest way of generating electricity throughout its whole supply chain. Miners continue to die in deep coal mines round the world, and coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear ones, for example.

Most commercial reactors only extract a small fraction of the energy contained in uranium, but reprocessing fuel can increase this many fold, reducing the need to mine more. Nor are we necessarily committed to the current fission technology. Small modular reactors which can be made effectively on an assembly line have their supporters; intrinsically-safe, very high temperature pebble-bed reactors represent an alternative approach, and use of the very abundant element thorium in the longer term holds out the prospect of a secure energy supply for several centuries.

In a broader context, the cost and time overruns with the new generation of fission reactors can be seen as part of the price for securing a long-term future for nuclear energy. At the current stage of technology development, there is certainly no other viable alternative on the horizon.